By Julie K.L. Dam
Updated August 13, 2001 12:00 PM

Sue Ismiel should be used to getting recognized. After all, the Australian inventor is a familiar face because of her star turn in infomercials for her popular Nad’s depilatory gel. But some fans don’t just stop to say hello. While shopping with her daughter Nadine in California recently, Ismiel, 43, found herself accosted by a stranger. “She looked at me and said, ‘Omigod, you’re the Nad’s lady! Please, can I feel your legs?’ ” she recalls with a laugh. “So there she was on the floor, feeling my leg. I looked at Nadine and said, ‘What have we done?’ ”

What she has done, without resorting to either wax or heat, is take some of the suffering out of being beautiful. With Nad’s, which removes hair when lifted off with fabric strips, even the most sensitive-skinned can make unwanted hair history—and they have, to the tune of more than $91 million in sales last year. “Obviously, pulling hair out of your flesh hurts,” Ismiel concedes. “But when you compare it to the hot torture of waxing, it’s not [as bad].”

In the beauty business, that’s no small feat. “I have actually used it on myself,” says Hollywood makeup artist Angela Moos, who has tried Nad’s on celebrity clients she won’t name. “I like it because it’s not messy, and because it’s water-soluble, it doesn’t irritate the skin.”

That was Ismiel’s primary goal when she started mixing what she calls “this green goo” on her Sydney kitchen stove 14 years ago. She was trying to cook up a depilatory to use on the sensitive skin of her daughter Natalie, then 6, who was self-conscious about the dark hair on her arms. “Poor baby,” says Ismiel. “It became like an obsession with me. I really wanted something for her.”

A hospital clerical worker with no chemistry background, Ismiel relied on her instincts—plus her kitchen pantry—and used her whole family as guinea pigs. Not even her husband, Sam, was spared. “I chased him around the house quite a few times,” she says. “I had spot marks on my legs, my arms, everywhere,” says Sam, 49, production manager for Nad’s, “and I couldn’t wear shorts.”

After a year, Ismiel came up with the right mix of honey, vinegar, molasses, water and lemon juice. “The first thing that I did was try it on Natalie,” says Ismiel. Recalls Natalie, 20, who works in marketing for Nad’s: “I was going around saying, ‘Look at my arm!’ ”

When Ismiel shared her concoction with friends, they encouraged her to start selling Nad’s (named for her oldest daughter, Nadine, 22, a chemist for Nad’s) at a Sydney market. After a successful direct-mail operation, she took Nad’s into stores in 1997—the same year she opened a factory—and to the United States in 1998 via an infomercial. Aired up to 1,000 times a week, it pulled in $23 million worth of orders in one two-month period in 1999. Now available for $19.95 in major supermarkets and drugstores, Nad’s has become the best-selling depilatory in the U.S.

Ismiel could hardly have conceived of such success while growing up in the tiny village of Teltamar, Syria, the oldest of five children of Jack Khanania, now 69, a school administrator, and his wife, Anna, 62, a homemaker. (Two of her siblings are involved in Nad’s: Brother Souhel, 38, is a consultant, and sister Samar Semaan, 32, is a bookkeeper.) She moved to Australia with her family when she was 15, and two years later dropped out of school and took a job as a doctor’s receptionist. Soon afterward she met Sam, also a native of Teltamar, at a pool party and married him in 1977. After Nadine, Natalie and Naomi, now 16, were born, Sue started on her clerical career while Sam worked as a factory foreman. “[The success] was beyond my wildest dreams,” she marvels. “A mother’s love ended up creating a product.”

Julie K.L. Dam

Sandra Lee in Sydney